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A Primer on Priorities

In spring 2012, millions of Americans took note of the swelling jackpot in the Mega Millions Lottery extravaganza that numerous states sponsor. The payoff for a winning ticket was potentially more than $500 million. Even though chances of winning were about 1 in 175 million, Americans rushed out to buy a chance at untold wealth. According to one report, in 48 hours Americans spent $1.5 billion on lottery tickets, hoping for financial immortality.

Eventually there were three winners who split the money, but there were more than 100 million losers. One of them was a man from California, who according to one news outlet, bought $1,080 in lottery tickets and won absolutely nothing.

In such depressing economic times, we might be tempted to ask, "Why would Americans stand in line to throw away their money?" Think of the collective good that might have been done if that $1.5 billion had been harnessed and spent on projects for the needy. No doubt there were individuals who didn't have money to spend so frivolously. It was likely needed for groceries or to pay bills. It seems like such a waste—a perfect example of wrong priorities.

Before those of us who didn't buy lottery tickets become too sanctimonious, perhaps we should take a look in the mirror and ask a question of ourselves: "Do I have the wrong priorities ordering my life?"

That brings us to our text today. Luke 10 gives us a brief but provocative and revealing story in which Jesus makes us scratch our collective heads about what He was asserting.

The story goes like this: Jesus was travelling with His disciples in the precincts around Jerusalem, and they came to the small village of Bethany, where Jesus entered the home of two sisters, Mary and Martha.

Martha was thoughtful, dutiful and observant of all the customs. She was getting the house ready for their distinguished guest. She was a little frantic—running to and fro, getting everything together; and everything needs to be put together. Thank goodness for Martha. Where would we be without the Marthas of the world getting things done?

Mary, the other sister, seems similar to many people we know. She sat around listening to Jesus while someone else did all the work—indifferent to the things that needed to be done. She appeared apathetic and lazy to Martha.

Mary reminds me a little of how my wife described her sister growing up in their home. The girls were required to do the dishes nightly after dinner. My wife, Josetta, was charged with the task of washing the dishes. Doing the washing included myriad tasks. She had to clear the table, scrape the food remnants into the garbage, run the soap and water, scrub the pots and pans, and wipe down the counters and the stainless steel. This was hard and dirty business!

Charma, my wife's sister, was to dry the dishes. Instead of really drying them, she waited until the dishes dried on their own. While they were drying, she would be watching TV in the living room, talking to a friend on the phone, doing her nails or reading a magazine. Once the dishes were dry—just before she went to bed—she would put them away—a brief and small responsibility.

"It's unfair you know," my wife would say 30 years later still a little ticked off about it, "me doing all the washing, scrubbing, cleaning, wiping the counters and scraping the uneaten food off the plates." Of course, it was unfair!

That's how Martha felt about Mary. Martha was doing all the work, and Mary did nothing except listened sweetly to Jesus with a beatific look on her face.

Martha sought to enlist the help of Jesus to fix this injustice. She said to Jesus with indignation and frustration in her voice, "Lord, tell her to help me!"

We in the peanut gallery have been watching this episode unfold. We are not neutral in this story. We see a villain and a victim. We know Jesus was going to chastise Mary, set her straight. "You teach her a lesson, Jesus. You give her a switchin'. You lower the boom on her, Jesus."

Instead, Jesus, as He often did, shocked us all. He chastised Martha instead of Mary. In fact He went so far to say, "Mary has chosen what is better."

Outrageous! Scandalous! Shocking!

Let's see what Jesus might have been trying to say to Martha and to us.

First, it is possible to fill our lives with good and right activities and to miss the goal of doing the most important thing.

"Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made" (Luke 10:40).

Notice the gospel writer did not say Martha was doing bad things. In fact, he said the opposite. He said she was making the preparations that needed to be made. She wasn't gambling the kids' tuition money in Vegas. She was doing the right things, the good things, the things that needed to be done; but they did not include the most important thing given the context.

Given the context, there was something far more important to do than bake the muffins and clear the table.

Mark Twain once wrote, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it's the difference between the lightning bug and lightning."

The same might be said of our lives: If we make the good things the most important thing, then we will live our lives in lightning bug territory.

Many people spend their lives doing good things. In fact, their lives are filled to exhaustion with doing good and right things. It is possible to so fill your life with good activities that you no longer know why you do them. You can become so busy that you lose your way. It is possible to be so disoriented doing good things that you don't recognize God is in the house! Could that be any of us?

Second, the most important disposition of life is to listen to and learn from Jesus.

"Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things. But one thing is needed and Mary has chosen what is better" (Luke 10:41-42).

Here we have the shocking statement of Jesus—condemning the doer of good things and celebrating do-nothing Mary.

Perhaps what Jesus was saying by this provocative, arresting comment is that more than doing a whole laundry list of good things, it is important to "listen to Me, to know My words, to hear the truth and with inner repose to consider and judge your life against the standards I am setting forward."

Jesus perhaps was saying that what matters most is knowing Him and His ways intimately and then acting in accordance with those ways. Action is important; but mindless, frenetic action is corrosive to our lives.

Let's put our ruminations about these matters in the form of a question: Was Jesus saying passive contemplation is more valuable than energetic action? Is it better to be sequestered away thinking about Jesus and His ways than to be doing Jesus' good deeds?

The answer appears to be a resounding NO!

There are two stories which appear earlier in Luke 10, and both of them feature doing.

The first is the story of Jesus sending out 72 of His disciples—two by two—to do good works. The second is the story of the Good Samaritan, who occupies a place in history and is considered good because of what he did. He went out of his way to take care of an injured man, using his own time and money to do so. In fact, Jesus punctuated the story of the Good Samaritan with this solitary exhortation: "Go and do likewise." These words serve as a preamble to the story of Mary and Martha and Jesus' celebration of Mary's contemplative spirit.

So we who have been paying attention to Jesus might feel a little confused. Are we supposed to venerate doing or contemplating? We feel like asking, "So what are you trying to say to us, Jesus?" On the surface, the two messages seem contradictory.

Might it be this—that going and doing are of maximum importance, but unless our doing good things is determined and energized by the One who is "the way, the truth and the life," all our doing may get us nowhere? In fact, isn't it possible that what appears to be wise doing might actually lead to destruction and dispossession?

The year 2008 will be known for the global financial meltdown. The industrialized world experienced a calamity that affected almost all inhabitants of the planet in some way. We watched those big investment banks located in the heart of New York City teeter and sway in the midst of the financial earthquake. The corporate titans of money such as Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and AIG had placed their own viability in doubt by not attending to the most important thing. They possessed tall, strong edifices that rose to the clouds. They occupied the most valuable real estate on the planet. They employed some of the sharpest minds in the world. They appeared to be invulnerable, but they were bankrupt or nearly so!

The famous American painter Norman Rockwell created a well-known painting, titled Self-Portrait. The painting is a picture of the artist painting himself. He is seated and peeking around the easel with brush in hand, painting himself as he looks in a mirror; that distinctive pipe sticking out of his mouth, those black-rimmed glasses, those piercing blue eyes and that narrow face. He keeps peeking around the easel to look at himself so he can remember what he looks like.

Jesus wants us to do a similar, but not exact thing. As we paint the person we want ourselves to be, we do not look so much into a mirror, but we look continually around the easel of life to study the face of Jesus so we can paint ourselves to look like Him. If we don't, our lives just become a frantic list of things to do. We can only become like Jesus and have a life that matters if we, as did Mary, sit at the Lord's feet and keep listening to Him. Then and only then will we really know how to act and how to live.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus and look full in His wonderful face
And the things of this life will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace.

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